A view of the undercroft of St Leonard's Hospital, York with a statue of a seated figure adjacent to the wall
A view of the undercroft of St Leonard's Hospital, York © Historic England OP08094
A view of the undercroft of St Leonard's Hospital, York © Historic England OP08094

Disability from 1485-1660

This section tells you how great changes in 16th century English society had a lasting effect on the lives of people with disabilities.

In this section

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The destruction of religious hospitals

When Henry VIII split from the Roman Church, he ordered the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries'. Across the country, religious houses were demolished and monks and nuns driven out. The hospitals in these buildings were lost, along with the systems of care they had provided for sick and disabled people. For many, poverty and a life on the streets followed this destruction.

A petition to King Henry in 1538 called for the re-foundation of the hospitals that had been closed down. It complained of 'the miserable people lyeing in the streete, offending every clene person passing by the way'. But very little new building took place over the next 30 years.

Social duty

Gradually, caring for disabled people became a civic duty, not just a religious matter. Rich benefactors still funded buildings for the disabled but it was to enhance their reputation, not to save their souls.

In London, new hospitals were built and some old ones were re-founded. These were increasingly public buildings, funded by parish collections, taxes and donations. By the end of the 16th century, new almshouses and hospitals were springing up.

Laws and social attitudes

A series of Poor Law Acts viciously punished 'sturdy vagabonds' who were seen as idle by choice. They could be whipped and branded. But the 'impotent poor' were viewed differently. 'The person naturally disabled, either in wit or member, as an idiot, lunatic, blind, lame etc., not being able to work…all these… are to be provided for by the overseers of necessary relief and are to have allowances … according to…their maladies and needs.'

The 'Natural Fools' at court

Life was very different for some. A few people we would recognise today as having learning disabilities enjoyed a privileged life at court, with a 'keeper' who looked after them. These 'natural fools' were seen as an important source of wisdom and humour. They provided a welcome contrast to the plotting and treachery at court.

The 'natural fool' Will Somer and 'Jane the Fool' can be seen in paintings of the Royal Family from this period.

Medical treatment for mental illness

The small Bethlem Hospital was the only institution for mentally ill people to survive. In 1547, its control passed to the Corporation of London and its first medically qualified superintendent was employed. The hospital suffered financial abuse and neglect for many years, but attitudes were changing and mental illness was increasingly seen as a matter for medical treatment.

Care in the community

Life could be very hard for disabled people but they were not isolated. Most mentally ill people lived in their communities, treated with religious, psychological, astrological and traditional remedies. Other disabled people married and had families and worked, unless their disabilities were too extensive. In 1570, a 70-year-old blind baker was still hard at work in Norwich, helped by his wife.


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